No overinterpretation, pleaseWhile the Trump administration is to start work in 18 days, the direction of his foreign policy is still unclear. There are attempts to predict the direction based on what Trump said about foreign policy and security during his campaign and his business career.
When I visited the United States in December, I had a chance to meet friends on Trump’s transition team and some who will be in the Trump administration and listen to their thoughts. Of course, their views and the direction of the Trump administration can change in the future. But knowing their thoughts would greatly help Korea prepare and respond.
When predicting Trump’s foreign policy, Korean experts never fail to emphasize America First and his transactional characteristics from and campaign and his business career. However, they make very subjective interpretations of the meaning of the concept. In fact, all U.S. presidents before Donald Trump have always put America’s interests first. America’s foreign policy has never prioritized the interests of other nations. The difference was which diplomatic measure is used to attain the ultimate goal of America’s interests. Sometimes, the United States makes a certain concession to another country on some issues that seem to incur a loss for the greater interests of America.
The America First that the Trump Administration emphasizes means that the United States would not take a loss in any case, or at least on the surface. Especially for diplomatic objectives, the United States would not tolerate economic loss anymore, most notably, Trump’s aides argue that the United States accepted China into the World Trade Organization for diplomatic purposes and this resulted in a loss in trade with China.
Here, the transactional quality kicks in. In the past, U.S. diplomacy is evaluated as a certain policy based on the sum of gains and losses from a certain issue. But Trump wants to see America’s gain in all individual cases. In short, the United States would stay in the game if it gains in the end. But Trump wants to win every single round of the game. For such an outcome, the United States would prefer bilateral negotiations to have an upper hand in every deal. So the Trump administration wants to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration promoted for the strategic interests of the United States and replace it with bilateral deals with each nation.
What’s important here is the improved trade balance with China. The Trump administration has made it clear that it would use all available means to pressure China as there is no way to restrict China within the existing international order. Some may view Trump’s friendly policy toward Russia as a new grand strategy to check on China. It is the opposite of normalizing diplomatic relations with China to check on the Soviet Union in 1979. However, the policies of the new administration that have been made public so far show that it is not part of a grand strategy but an approach to maximize America’s interests for each diplomatic issue. No intention to link China policy with Russia policy has been revealed yet.
Korea’s biggest concern is the North Korea policy of the Trump administration, more specifically, whether the hardline policy toward China would change the approach on North Korea. Trump has sent mixed messages about the North, calling Kim Jong-un a crazy man with nuclear weapons and missiles but also saying that he would talk to Kim. Therefore, there are doubts that he would have a different approach on the North Korean issue if the clash with China intensifies.
But those in Trump’s camp denied the possibility. For a grand bargain of exchanging the freezing of nuclear and missiles program with a peace agreement, Pyongyang must accept the verification that the United States wants, but it is not likely at all. While the possibility of talks would not be ruled out, they see no chance of negotiation. Considering Trump’s transactional diplomatic style, there is little to gain from nuclear talks. Moreover, many members of the transition committee have a hawkish position on the North Korean regime, so North Korea policy is likely to be hardline.
In the first half of 2017, Korea’s foreign policy is faced with a rapidly changing environment. Internally, Korea is troubled with a leadership vacuum. We desperately need responses based on in-depth analysis rather than superficial approaches.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 31, Page 25